The J. Paul Getty Trust will invest $ 100 million in conserving antiquities in ancient societies around the world, citing threats such as sectarian violence and climate change, officials at the Los Angeles-based organization said on Tuesday.
The trust, which operates the Getty Museum, has long focused on Greek and Roman antiquities. This new program, however, was designed to expand its conservation efforts to countries where it had not worked before, including Southeast Asia and Central and South America.
"These are the things that have survived over the millennia," said James Cuno, president of the Getty Trust, "there is a sense of threat to the integrity of the ancient world, and it is happening under our eyes."
Many of the projects already scheduled to receive money focus on training local conservatives and archaeologists in other countries, rather than employing a Getty expert to do the preservation work.
In Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region of Iraq, for example, Getty says it will fund a training program for 12 Iraqi experts, teaching them emergency conservation skills and strategies to preserve damaged cultural relics.
"Getty can't come in and do conservation without partnering," Cuno said in an interview. "The task is to work with local authorities to address the conservation of their cultural heritage."
The initiative does not directly address criticism that in the past Getty and other Western museums have been quick to rescue relics from unstable or developing countries and appropriate them for their collections. But it clearly demonstrates Getty's interest in cultivating resources that will preserve cultural heritage treasures in their home countries.
Cuno said the new initiative is unrelated to criticism but based on the simple fact that training people on site is more beneficial than limited intervention.
"This is where resource investment can have a longer life than just getting in and solving part of the problem," said Cuno.
Cuno, who previously ran the Art Institute of Chicago, has been an important voice in the antiquation repatriation debate. He argued that important antiques, rather than being returned, should remain in countries that have the resources to keep them safe – a stance that has been criticized by some as patronizing.
The repatriation debate resumed four years ago when Islamic militants demonstrated the destruction of secular relics in places like the Mosul Museum in Iraq. At that moment, Cuno said, he was impressed that "all we were doing was wringing our hands and expressing indignation."
It seemed the right moment to devote a significant portion of Getty's resources to a solution that involved enhancing the skills of local conservation efforts in threatened areas.
Part of the money will also be spent in areas outside the conflict zones, such as an archaeological site in Cyprus in the Mediterranean region, where the institution has done much of its work since its founding in 1982. (The Getty Villa in Los Angeles, Designed to resemble an ancient Roman village, it houses the institution's ancient Greek and Roman art.)
The location in Paphos, a town on the country's southwest coast, attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists each year to its ancient mosaic sidewalks. The materials found on the site date back to the Hellenistic, Roman, early Christian and Byzantine periods.
Local mosaics and other relics, many of which were discovered by a farmer in the 1960s, are currently threatened by a number of factors, including exposure to the elements, overdevelopment in the city and an over-saturated tourism industry, said Jeanne Marie Teutonico, director. Conservation Institute Program Associate. Working with the Cyprus Department of Antiquities, Getty will devise a strategy for preserving the mosaics through a possible combination of archaeological shelters and burials to prevent sun, sea and air damage.
"If you leave them exposed homeless, you need ongoing maintenance," said Teutonico. "We are seeing more storms, stronger rain, warmer temperatures. All this accelerates the deterioration."
Other projects to receive funding from Getty include a land architecture conservation training program in Abu Dhabi and an initiative to digitally preserve two decades of data from an excavation site in central Turkey.
Michael McCormick chairs Science of the Human Past, a network of Harvard researchers who delve into world history with new scientific and archaeological approaches. The Getty program is now possible, he said, thanks to an influx of new technologies, including more sophisticated approaches to genetic testing and materials science. And it seems to embrace a global understanding of ancient civilizations as earlier conceptions revolved around Greece and Rome, without connecting them to their broader context.
"There is a growing understanding of the ancient world," he said, "through the growing awareness that we are a kind of migrant who has been on the move since our earliest days."